Todd Terje on the Obscure Influences Behind His Electronic Summer Jams

Norwegian DJ explains how he moved from breezy disco edits to downtempo Bryan Ferry collabs

Todd Terje
Christian Belgaux
Todd Terje
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During dance music's recent epoch, it's been a tale of two parties: The former, tagged EDM, farms millions from fields of filthy teens raving to ever-crescendoing melodic poofs of candy-floss pop; the latter, legitimized by Daft Punk's Grammy, is preoccupied with adult listening experiences and studied album-length projects. Both foster dubious definitions of the genre's pleasure principle. So, takk Gud for Todd Terje's spring of hope.

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Released this week, It's Album Time, the rimshot-titled debut album under the Norwegian DJ/producer Terje Olsen's "Todd Terje" tag (the moniker's a coy wink at pioneering Brooklyn producer Todd Terry), is inviting yet shrewd, a virtual pleasure cruise that's not quite escapist, despite Olsen once being dubbed "King of the Summer Jams." It never overdoes the cheese-crostini flourishes and keeps the dinner-music interludes to a minimum; in other words, it's a civilized party record that's satisfying on more levels than those scaled by Avicii.

This is no easy feat – devising a distinctive, consistently compelling dance-music full-length that expands the artist's sound without domesticating or gentrifying it. "I know exactly what you mean, and I hate when artists try to 'grow up,' and I was afraid of falling into that trap," says Olsen from his home in Oslo. "But, for me personally, I don't think that's ever the kind of music I do."

For five years, starting in the mid-2000s, Olsen was having trouble making any music of his own. "I'd gotten stuck on this thought that the original idea had to be good enough for me to start, but finally I realized that even if you have a brilliant first idea, the good stuff only happens when you get in the midst of working and reworking something." Still, this epiphany took awhile to emerge, so, in the meantime, he focused on the remixes, especially disco edits, that actually established Olsen as an unlikely dance-floor don. His teasingly resculpted tracks, by everyone from Chic to Chris Rea to Paul Simon to the Bee Gees to Stevie Wonder to Michael Jackson, provided some of the most orgiastic club moments of the past decade.

"I wanted to make my own music," says Olsen, "But since I was finding it tough to get started, the remixing and editing was much easier because you already have an idea. My job was just to make it better or to make it longer or to focus on the right parts and just have fun, really. I was, of course, frustrated, but. . ." His breakthrough came with 2011's radiant disco-trance sunburst "Ragysh" (the first single following the five-year drought). "After that, I decided to just start with a warm key chord or a very, very simple sound and keep trying to make something out of that, instead of passing judgment on whether something was worthy right from the start."

From then on, he's been rolling on charmed skates. Olsen reeled off the gloriously bubbly swing of "Inspector Norse" and the cosmic-coastal chug of "Strandbar" (both included on the album) and "Spiral" and "Snooze 4 Love" and "Lanzarote," the fiercely pumping fantasia produced with Hans-Peter Lindstrøm (which Olsen originally titled "Cowley," in tribute to early electronic-dance-music architect Patrick Cowley). An early track, "Eurodans," was sampled by Robbie Williams, supplying a financial boost. He also produced parts of Franz Ferdinand's 2013 album Right Thoughts, Right Words, Right Action. After all this activity, he felt freed-up enough to pursue fresh ideas.

"Since I was a musician, playing piano, before I was a DJ," he says, "sometimes the DJ thing felt a little alienating and dance music could seem a little stupid, but I would do it because that's what worked. I've learned a lot from dance music, but I did feel like it was putting a serious lid over my creativity; and now, with this album, I feel like I could finally lift that lid."

It's Album Time, like Terje, is wry and meticulously quirky, moving through an artful array of styles. The one-two, tee-hee groove of "Leisure Suit Preben" and "Preben Goes to Acapulco" (inspired by Terje's adoration of adult-themed video game Leisure Suit Larry) sounds like Harold Faltermeyer tripping balls all over the "Love Boat Theme." There's a frisky cover of 1978 Swedish jazz-dance workout "Svensk Sås" and "Alfonso Muskedudner," a kooky Latin-percussion shimmy with sunshine-pop vocals, delirious synth scratch-offs and dork-funk breakdowns. But according to Terje, the album's definitive track is first single "Delorean Dynamite," which resulted from an early thematic impulse.

"Initially, I thought I'd do an the album based on library music," says Olsen, "which is music made by labels in the 1970s for the purpose of being used by TV and radio stations. It's a lot about visually describing an event, often with a title like, 'Wild Crazy Dramatic Couple at 140 BPM' or 'Calm Breezy Exotic Jungle Scene.' I liked the visual aspect of it, making you imagine things as you listen to the music. Also, to have a limiting idea like that actually makes it easier to go very wild within those limits. So, I realized I wanted to do a library album, but then we found out we were pregnant [with son Alf] and I suddenly had a time deadline of about seven months."

"Delorean Dynamite," with its locomotive bass line, cumulus chords and majestic swish, had its genesis in what Terje calls a "very rare cosmic library record" – 1982's Explorer by Tony Carey, an ex-Rainbow keyboardist who moved from California to Germany and adopted the name Planet P Project, scoring a couple of U.S. radio hits. Olsen had a "real empathy" for Explorer, which made him think of "space travel and moving insanely fast even though it feels like you're moving really slowly. It's hard to explain." He stops and laughs. "Very juvenile thoughts."

True, but Terje never lets you get too blithely comfortable: The next track, "Johnny and Mary," featuring the haggard whisper of Bryan Ferry, shifts the mood measurably, as if we've peaked and collapsed in a tray of cigarette butts. Terje, who was DJ'ing in London last year, stopped by Ferry's West London studio (the two met via Ferry's son Isaac, who asked Terje to mix Ferry's 2011 single "Alphaville") while the former Roxy Music flâneur was engaged in a particularly challenging task: covering Robert Palmer songs. "Johnny and Mary," from Palmer's 1980 techno-soul exploration Clues (contributions by Gary Numan), was an anxious synth-pulsing lament for an aging couple's waning romance. The video had mimes. A hit amongst Germany's despairing populace, it was eventually covered by punk aesthetes the Notwist.

Ferry, bathing in Olsen's rumbling, drifting atmospherics, sounds like he's crooning from his sick bed: "Johnny's always running around/Trying to find certainty. . .Mary counts the walls/Knows he tires easily." Olsen, who was unaware of Palmer's music, relished the true collaborative back-and-forth with Ferry. "We recorded a sketch that was a bit similar to the original, then he re-recorded it with a band at half-tempo, which resembled my version remotely, and then I changed the instrumentation, which led him to re-record the vocals. It seemed natural, like he was responding to my music and I was responding to his vocals." In finished form, the song also sounds like it could be describing a dark moment for an exhausted young dad. In further news, there's a version of "Addicted to Love" in the can.

Ultimately, what makes Olsen so remarkable, whether amongst his DJ/producer peers or beyond, is his ambitious breadth and imaginative wit. In many ways, It's Album Time could be the record that older Daft Punk fans wished the French robots would've made – adventurous electronic pop absent the ponderous chatter about "real" instruments and Fleetwood Mac. And it's one of the year's best records for a simple reason – you'll find no better 2014 travel companion.

"Hopefully, it's not just about the songs," says Olsen. "It's like the music is accompanying you on a journey, or it sounds like you're watching a movie with your eyes closed. For me, that's the ideal situation for music. Or life, really."

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